In August, François Fillon, a right-wing French politician, lamented the existence of school books that instructed students to feel “ashamed" about the misdeeds of France's imperial past.
“No, France is not guilty of having wanted to share its culture with the peoples of Africa, Asia and North America,” Fillon said in a speech. His framing of the history of colonialism — built, as all empires are, on domination, violence and exploitation — as simply a “sharing of culture” raised eyebrows. But it did nothing to dim his political star.
This week, Fillon won the primary of France's center-right Republicans and now is one of the front-runners for presidential elections next year. He is not an ordinary center-right candidate: In a year where populist, ultranationalist politics gained sway across the West — and where the candidacy of Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front looms large in France — Fillon actively embraces many of their causes.
He grandstands over the threat of Islam, writ large; he inveighs against the perils of multiculturalism; he bucks the liberal European status quo and admires the authoritarian rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And, as he made clear a few months back, he is fond of a simpler, whiter, more glorious imperial moment in France's political history.
“A Fillon victory” in the center-right primary, my colleague James McAuley explained ahead of his success, “would represent the party’s fringe ideology becoming the political mainstream.”
Now that it has, Fillon will face off against Le Pen, whose National Front was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an unapologetic believer in the “inequality of races” and alleged participant in the torture of Algerian rebels during that country's independence war against French colonial rule. Le Pen's National Front — now one of the standard-bearers of Europe's far-right — first emerged as a party of disgruntled military veterans, French settlers and dogged imperialists.
The shadow of empire doesn't only hang over France. Britain's pro-Brexit politicians — who scored a shock victory in a referendum this summer over Britain's place in the European Union — embraced their nation's imperial legacy as the antidote to abandoning the European project.
The far-right United Kingdom Independence Party declared that a Britain free of the European Union would welcome its former colonies as closer trade partners. “Outside the E.U. the world is our oyster, and the Commonwealth the pearl within,” ran a slogan on its website. The future that critics of Brexit predict, though, is one where Britain's role on the world stage shrinks even further from its halcyon days as the first global superpower.
Nevertheless, nostalgia for empire remains a cornerstone of nationalist politics. UKIP leader Nigel Farage made no secret of his contempt for Europe's liberals as well as President Obama, who had warned British voters against leaving the European Union. He suggested that Obama had an inherited bias against Britain.
“I think Obama, because of his grandfather and Kenya and colonization, I think Obama bears a bit of a grudge against this country,” Farage, a vocal supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, said. Boris Johnson, Britain's foreign minister and another leading pro-Brexit politician, similarly framed Obama's objection to Brexit as a consequence of the American president's supposed “ancestral dislike” of Britain.
Before becoming Britain's top diplomat, Johnson had a penchant for saying rather undiplomatic things. He once referred to the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea as “cannibals.” And he celebrated British imperial rule as a prominent conservative columnist.
“The [African] continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,” he once wrote. “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
A similar hubris informs Trump's impatience with the world outside the United States. While his campaign of “Make America Great Again” plays to a populist crowd at home, its anchored in a muscular vision of America that has little interest in multilateral diplomacy or the workings of the liberal global order.
How else to explain the ludicrous assumption that Mexico would pay for a wall on its own border? Or Trump's glee on the campaign trail when he recounted a legend of American occupation in the Philippines, when a U.S. military officer was said to have gunned down Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pig's blood.
And it's not just in Western Europe and the United States where dreams of the past have taken hold: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadily cloaked his long rule in nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire; India's Hindu-nationalist government reaches back to myths of a more authentic nation, before the invasions of Muslims and Europeans.
In an incisive article on the “rebranding” of the West's far-right in Britain's Guardian newspaper, journalist Sasha Polakow-Suransky discussed how some of the fundamental tenets of 20th-century leftist thinking, such as anti-racism and anti-colonialism, “have now become establishment thinking” in much of the West — and are therefore now in the crosshairs of a nationalist, anti-establishment backlash.
“Idealism has been bureaucratized,” argued the liberal Dutch journalist Bas Heijne. “And when the establishment enforces universalism, you react against it.”
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